By Jim Walsh
The arrest two weeks ago of an Ahwatukee club baseball coach on charges he molested young players about nine years ago has raised questions about the scrutiny that club sports organizations give adults involved in their activities.
And it has prompted police and experts on sexual predators to remind parents that they must take an active role in protecting their children.
“Organizations that sponsor any kind of youth activity have a responsibility to protect children,’’ said Becky Ruffner, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse of Arizona. “They must have two adults present at all times. Predators thrive on secrecy and deniability.’’
Richard Allen Gallegos, 53, of the 1700 block West Wildwood Drive, Ahwatukee, was arrested July 11 by Chandler police on suspicion of a long list of sex charges stemming from incidents involving two victims, according to Sgt. Dan Mejia, a police spokesman.
The charges include five counts of sexual conduct with a minor and three counts of child molestation. Detectives wrote that the abuse occurred while Gallegos was a coach for a club baseball team that practiced in Ahwatukee, Chandler and Tempe.
In court documents, police said Gallegos was alone with one of two male victims, who were between 11 and 14 years old when the alleged molestation occurred.
He is accused by police of committing a sex act on a boy inside a bathroom at Sun Ray Park in Ahwatukee.
Police alleged that he committed a similar act with a victim in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant in Phoenix, and while driving a boy to a teammate’s birthday party in his car. Another incident involving such a sex act occurred inside the defendant’s car while they were parked in a church parking lot in Lake Havasu City.
Police also accused Gallegos of forcing a boy into a sexual act while he was supposedly consoling the victim after his team lost a baseball game.
The court document said the case against Gallegos crystallized when a male victim, who is now 21, told police that Gallegos had molested him when he played on the team when he was 11 to 14 years old.
The second victim, who also was 11 to 14 years old at the time, was interviewed by detectives and recounted sexually abusive incidents to police, Mejia said.
Mejia said police had dropped a previous investigation in 2009 because the boys declined to reveal abuses.
“During this time, Gallegos helped coach a club baseball team in Ahwatukee and volunteered as a baseball coach at Seton Catholic Preparatory High School in Chandler. Detectives at the time did not have enough evidence to charge Gallegos with a crime,’’ according to a Chandler police press release.
Seton sent an email to parents after the arrest, saying that while no incident have been discovered during his involvement with the school, “We are cooperating with the police investigation and we seek to learn more about the situation.”
Gallegos admitted he was close to one of the victims, but he denied sexually abusing him, the court document said.
Police and child advocates say the Gallegos case also shows how difficult it is for victims of any gender – but especially males – to come forward and report such hurtful experiences.
They are hoping that victims who have buried the psychological trauma caused by abuse many years are inspired by the courage of the 21-year-old victims, who were 14 when they were molested, to finally report molestation.
Chandler police Detective Ashley Nolan, who has investigated sex crimes for 6½ years, echoed Ruffner’s reminder to parents and adults involved in club sports.
“There should be very minimal situations where a child is alone with an adult,’’ she said.
Nolan said predators usually follow a somewhat predictable pattern of abuse. They start by targeting vulnerable children, who sometimes are estranged from their parents or are not getting enough attention for other reasons.
Predators gradually take steps to gain the trust of victims, grooming them with gifts such as video games, she said. Eventually, they seek to isolate the child so that they are alone together, making the abuse possible. After the sex crimes start occurring, there are threats designed to manipulate a child into not reporting it.
She said studies have determined that boys are less likely to report sexual abuse than girls because of embarrassment and the stigma associated with it. Detectives have to combine empathy with their investigative skills to successfully put a case together that can lead to a conviction.
Nolan said police must console as well as cajole a victim. “This is a horrible thing that happened to you, it’s terrible you have had to live with that for so long, but we can bring justice to light,’’ she explained, repeating her advice to victims. “People will say, this happened a long time ago, but I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.’’
She said she always hopes that media reports of such cases will inspire other victims to come forward. Police know there are many victims who have never revealed they have been abused and studies have found that children are very unlikely to report abuse to their parents.
The case also spotlights the level of background checks and supervision given coaches and the adults involved in club sports.
Club teams, often referred to as travel teams, generally attract serious players who are hoping to advance into college or even professional sports after they graduate from high school. The teams typically travel to tournaments in Arizona and other states.
Rick Kelsey, chief executive officer of the Arizona Soccer Association, said he knows it is impossible to catch every potential predator, but it his obligation to protect children in every way possible.
“We do background checks on all of our coaches,’’ he said, with two or three applicants rejected every year for a variety of reasons. “Anytime you are involved in youth sports, safety is paramount.’’
Kelsey said youth organizations are under increasing pressure to assure the safety of children in every way possible, especially in the aftermath of sexual abuse cases involving Olympic athletes, including the U.S women’s gymnastics team.
Congress established the U.S. Center for SafeSport to investigate allegations of sexual abuse within the U.S. Olympic and Paralympics, focusing on the 49 governing bodies involved with Olympic sports. SafeSport also conducts training sessions on how to prevent sexual abuse aimed at any sport.
The federal mandatory reporting law resulted in 1,037 reports of potential abuse during the organization’s 15 months in existence, with 289 sanctions imposed and 149 individuals ruled permanently ineligible. More than 400,000 people have completed an online training session.
For decades, Arizona has had a mandatory law for reporting sexual abuse, although there have been instances of it not being followed properly.
“Irrespective of legal obligations, there are moral obligations,’’ Kelsey said.
One unintended consequence is that some people who would otherwise be interested in helping children decide to avoid coaching, Kelsey said.
“We lose these people because they are afraid of this perception,’’ he said.
Still, Kelsey said, parents need to ask what organization is sanctioning a team, whether it’s part of a league or a club team that travels to tournaments, and whether the coaches have been vetted properly through background checks.
“The complication of it is these club teams,’’ he said. “I am convinced we are doing everything we can. We have all the right intentions to do all the right things.’’
Although background checks are important, Ruffner said, it’s important for parents not to think of them as a panacea for weeding out would-be abusers.
“Background checks are fine and well if that person has a record,’’ Ruffner said.
A background check on Gallegos found no arrest history in Arizona, a fact police confirmed.
Experts also said it’s critical that parents establish a deep relationship with their children through strong communication. They also should watch how their children interact to coaches, ministers or any other adults associated with youth programs, Nolan said.
“We need to believe children. They don’t make this stuff up because it’s fun,’’ Ruffner said.